MEMOIRS OF A FORTNIGHT IN FRENCH
What is it like to live, day and night, in a language you've brushed against but can't really speak? For this writer the first few days were funny when they weren't embarrassing; the next few were lonely and frustrating; and by the last day he had learned — or so he believes — why French-speaking Canadians sometimes feel like strangers in their own land
ALL THE WAY on the train to Quebec City, I had been practising the address where I was to live in French for two weeks. This address involved the unwieldy (for a novice) figure, cent soixante dix-huit. But by the time the train pulled in, I was pretty sure I could handle it. I lugged my bags through the station—no sense starting too soon, with a red-cap—to a door through which I could see the roof-lights of taxis. The train had been full; the line-up of taxis was as busy as a merry-go-round. I began to panic. What if I had to share a cab, to be overheard in my stammering recital, or—worse—what if I had to bargain w'ith another passenger about who would be let o(T first? What was the word for share? Let off? First?
1 cowered into the shadow's. Blowing on my hands for warmth, 1 waited until the tide of travelers ebbed and the taxis began to return for second trips. 1 hailed one and gave the address. My two weeks had barely begun and already I had actually communicated in French.
HE LOST SOME ENGLISH RESERVE . . .
The shyness that kept me lurking under the eaves of the railroad station was. to a large extent, what had prompted me to come to Quebec. This shyness is hard to explain—particularly to French Canadians, who throw themselves recklessly into our language w'ith, apparently, no hesitation whatever. (With the result, of course, that being bilingual in Canada nearly always means what the French say it means: being French and speaking English.) Perhaps our shyness is just fear of losing our dignity. But whatever it is, it seems to be epidemic among Englishspeaking Canadians, and I suffer, or did suffer, from a chronic case of it.
Late this fall, I decided to attempt a cure. I knew the only way was to have to speak French, and the way to do that was to live solely in French for a while. I had, if anything, more than the usual academic background; five years French in high school, two at university. But I had seldom so much as ordered une tasse de café, and that usually only to impress a dinner companion. I called the Quebec City office of Visites I mer provinciales, a twenty-five-year-old organization that now places some 1,700 people a year, mostly students, into the middle of the other culture. Within days, I was on my way to Quebec, armed with that unwieldy address in Lower Town and the assurance that for $25 a week 1 would be given bed, board and no opportunity to speak English.
Did it work? Well, yes, in a way. My French improved remarkably, and remarkably quickly. On Day Six I made a pun. I had slept in and w'hen I appeared, groggily, at breakfast, the père of my French family said teasingly: “Vous
l'avez bien couvé.’’ While I was searching for couver (it means “hatch") in my dictionary, M’sieur tried to help by referring to a television program 1 had seen and enjoyed. La poule aux œufs d'or. Whereupon witty old 1 said: “Ah non. Moi, je suis la poule qui dort.“ (1 was groggy.)
But the answer is not that simple. While it is true that now I do speak French—I seem to be through the shyness barrier—I do not speak it well. Satisfactory (to me) as my two weeks’ progress w'as. there is a great deal of difference between turning the awkward French of the Ontario classroom into a fairly useful language, and becoming what might be described in the most flattering terms as bilingual. If a conversation develops statements more than three sentences long. I am lost. I cannot follow' song lyrics. I cannot argue: 1 cannot eavesdrop. 1 cannot say.
“I have never seen anything quite like that before." And when I make puns . . . see above.
But, language aside, I did learn something in my two weeks in Quebec that I thought made the trip worthwhile. It came to me quite suddenly, one cold, rain-muffled afternoon, as I walked the ancient and enchanting streets of Quebec's Upper Town. Such a walk had quickly become almost a daily ritual; I found it a good way to escape, without actually cheating, the sometimes depressing continuity of my two-week lesson. During these walks I would ponder my lonely exile, like Napoleon on Elba.
. . . AND FOUND SOME FRENCH INSIGHT
That day, I began to think of what it would be like if that exile were not purely voluntary, not simply a sort of game to improve my French, a game that would end in another week, and from which escape was only as far away as the English movie. But what if there were no English movie? What if I were really forced to live in a language in which I was an awkward stranger? Would I not resent it? And, in resenting it, would I not feel exactly as French Canadians in English Canada have been feeling for generations: cheated of my citizenship, a foreigner in my own land? 1 realize that this discovery may seem somewhat naïve. But it is a simple truth about the English fact in Canada that it is quite possible to live one’s entire life outside Quebec and to accept, quite happily, the notion of a country where a third of l£ie people speak a language other than one’s own without ever realizing what that difference can mean in human terms. I remember from my university days a series of exchange visits with a group of students from the University of Montreal. I was, then, simply astonished that there was any thought on the part of those CONTINUED OVER PAGE
students that English Canadians felt that the French ought not to speak French, even among themselves. This, from my experience, anyway, was nonsense. But — and typically — the language of those exchange visits was nearly always F’nglish, for the obvious reason that we couldn’t, or wouldn’t, speak French. And in the formal discussions that were a part of the program, it was the Ontario students who did most of the talking. Now, in Quebec City, putting myself into the position that the French students occupied during those visits, I could understand what could lead many of them to long for a country where it would be the other guy who was on awkward terms. I thought, in other words, that if 1 had to face the prospect of living in a second language all the time—or of having to live in a second language in order to compete on equal terms with everyone else around me—I might very well think, in an Anglicized sort of manner — the way the Separatists of Quebec think now.
For one thing, I was, even at home, a stranger. This was not the fault of the family with whom Visiles Interprovinciales had billeted me. My French family, indeed, could scarcely have been kinder. Their name was Piché and there were three of them in the four-room apartment they shared with me. M. Piché is a small, quiet man with a tired air and a sudden, refreshing smile. He is a pressman with a commercial printing house, but 1 suspect that by avocation he is a teacher; he took delight in leading me to the understanding of a new word or phrase, by searching for synonyms or applications until I would get it, through sign language or, more often, find it in the pocket dictionary I carried constantly. (This dictionary became known, in a sort of family joke, as my bréviaire.) Mme. Piché is also small (sometimes I felt like Gulliver among the Lilliputians) and gentle. She sets a very plentiful table, perhaps too plentiful. Living with them is their son. Richard, seventeen, a salesman in a department store. All three of them, and such of their relatives as I met, treated me not as a boarder but as a guest, or even a visiting member of the family. They worried over me, stuffed me with food, gave me the most comfortable chair (and Richard’s bedroom; he camped in the living room) and introduced me to anyone who called. The result of this kindness was that 1 was seldom able to relax, having always to be prepared to reject a bonbon, or assure someone I was comfortable, or try out a new phrase. The result of this, in turn, was that I was constantly being reminded that here I was, if not on display, at least some sort of different species, just slightly out of step with the tempo of life in their home.
And in order even to be in that life, no matter how far out of tempo, it was necessary, at least for the first several days, to concentrate all the time. The tiniest grain of small-talk became as difficult to bring off as an after-dinner oration. I felt, in fact, quite as if I had to script everything I was going to say in advance. So that what was at first an adventure—and a triumph of actually being able to talk in French— became, too often, nothing more than an ordeal. I recall lying in bed on .Day Four or Five, and actually dreading having to plunge once more into a round of jovial and unimportant conversation that would be, I knew, as difficult for me to sustain as a public dialogue with Oscar Levant. A guy. after all, ought to be able to ask whether the bathroom’s clear without having to edit his speech first.
There was also the fact that for two weeks I was stupid. Though M. Piché has an English vocabulary that I guess is equal to my French one, and we seldom ran into a complete breakdown of communications, we were restricted almost solely to discus-
sions of subjects little more profound than the cost of living or Claude Provost’s latest goal. I know, for instance, the word for a blanket, but 1 do not know how to say that an idea has blanketed the province. One evening when I attempted to discover how M. Piché felt about the Separatist movement that is so much a topic of conversation in French Canada—and to explain that, having lived as a foreigner for ten days or so, I could understand what was behind the movement and sympathize with it—I discovered instead that we simply did not have the verbal equipment to see where each other stood. And in his home, it was / who was stupid. Not understanding what is said to you is not like doing badly on one of those test-yourself magazine quizzes (on Day Eleven, in fact, I got six out of fifteen on the Sélection version of How to Improve Your Word Power); it’s more like getting caught at a party by your nine-yearold nephew’s latest riddle. I’ve always been mildly annoyed by people who shout
at people on the theory that what they’re saying is clearer when it’s more deafening. But when the person they’re shouting at is you, the habit is more than mildly annoying. Mme. Piché, with whom I had to communicate in order not to get ketchup on my roast beef, used to speak very slowly and clearly to me. (At least she used to start clearly, saying very carefully phrases like “aimerez-vous . . .” and then speed up into a machine-gun burst of nouns and verbs that sounded to me like one long and incomprehensible word.) And the more carefully she would enunciate for me, the more I would want to leap up and shout at her: “I am not the idiot child. I'm reasonably bright. I once got ninety-eight in trigonometry.” I’m sure all that stopped me on at least one occasion was the knowledge that if 1 did shout at her, 1 would be shouting gibberish.
Yet speaking to me slowly was necessary. One Sunday, when the Pichés were entertaining their daughter and assorted children, we men were eating in front of the television set watching something called the Heure des quilles (bowling; I could understand it). I had already assured Madame at least twice that I had had enough to eat and that it was all to my taste. Then the daughter, a jolly girl, came at my plate like Bernie Geoffrion coming in on goal and said something to me, which
I thought, of course, was more concern over my welfare. “Oui," I said, automatically, while watching a bowler try for une réserve. “Très bien." The daughter laughed and went out to the kitchen to tell everyone what the crazy Englishman had said this time, which turned out to be that I ate much better than that at home.
Such fluffs, however, were quite rare. Almost as soon as 1 discovered that living in French was a little different than filling out the blanks in a text book. I began working on some tricks of performing a second language without actually speaking it. Since they may be of some help in surmounting the barriers of our nation, I will give you three of them:
1. The principle of key words. This device is based on the fact that a great deal of what humans say to each other is predictable; if one is expecting to h\ar something, it is not really necessary tô Hear ^ ' at all. Thus, on arising, if I were to hear the syllable “dor" in my landlady’s cheerful and voluble greeting. I could be reasonably certain she was asking if I had slept well, and I could toss off a “oui, merci, très bien," (this was not the only phrase
I learned) with little fear of detection. Similarly, there could be certain key words in her run-down of the menu for breakfast and from them I could make a pretty certain selection.
2. The art of nonconversation, which is most useful in shops. Step one: find a store big enough to offer self-service. Step two: find the item you want and take it to the cashier, saying nothing. Step three, if the price is not marked, can be either: (a) watch the cash register (a dangerous device in provinces where there is a sales tax, often registered separately) or (b) offer the biggest bill you have; you will get change. Employing this technique, it is possible to see a movie, ride a bus, or by the simple additional device of holding up two fingers, drink beer in a tavern — in short, to spend one’s whole day (and bankroll ) without having to say anything.
3. Passive discussion. Even at the height of my powers of French, it was impossible for me to follow long stories. I had to translate as I went along, and would soon fall behind, like a guitar player trying to accompany The Flight of the Bumble Bee. But you would be surprised how much someone will tell you about the reaction he’s looking for by the way he tells his story. The trick is to'watch his expression and echo it. He frowns; you frown more deeply. He smiles; you grin. A sympathetic cluck here, a vigorous nod and perhaps a brisk “oui" there, a bemused I-understandbut-who-else-would laugh at the end and you are marked as a brilliant conversationalist.
In spite of these tricks—or perhaps because of them — there is no doubt that m> ear for French did improve during my two weeks. (Though after about ten days I was so used to laughing at jokes I did not understand that when I finally began to get a few. I had to be careful not to htugh so loudly that I would be taken for hysterical. )
This question of "ear” seemed central to my whole experience. It is customary for educated English Canadians to explain that the reason they do not understand everything that is said to them in French Canada is that the Québécois do not speak good French. And I was warned often before I went to Quebec that I must not get in with a family that spoke jouai — the French people’s own way of describing the dialect in which the word “cheval" is slurred. But I decided that the reason I was living in Quebec was to learn to communicate, not to get into university, and if a Frenchman wanted to say “pas pire," when I asked him “comment ça va?" (and not “comment allez-vous?” as I was taught
in scheol) then I was darned if 1 was going to correct him.
Further. I’d already learned—I worked in Seven Islands one summer—that jouai is harder for an Englishman to understand than a high-school teacher’s French, and I reasoned that if I could get my ear tuned to it, I could understand all French. This theory worked, to a certain extent, though I was surprised to learn that the hardest words to comprehend in jouai are those taken directly from English. I don't know why this should be, unless 1 was straining so hard to translate every word that when I came to one I didn’t have to translate—like watchez—I simply missed it completely. (I made a little collection of these F.nglish-in-French words in Quebec and rm favorite expression was something a taxi-driver said. He’d had a flat tire as he w'as driving me home and had called another cab. We were just pulling away when my new driver noticed the first one looking into the trunk of his car and cursing. “Qu’est-ce qu’H y a?" he asked. "Le spare at flat aussi." said the first driver.)
The Piches spoke some jouai, but they always apologized to me for it and 1 suspect they did it as a sort of joke. M. Piché said, only partly facetiously I thought, that the reason the Quebec dialect is often indistinct is that many habitants worked outdoors through the winter and it’s difficult to pronounce words clearly with frozen lips. I. in turn, used to amuse the Pichés by using such jouai phrases from Seven Islands as "okay d'abord" wbich means, roughly, “oh. all right then,” or such pronunciations as tnoy instead of mwa, for “me.” 1 found, too, that using the French trick of ending many statements with là or ça made me feel much more as if I were talking French, and gave me confidence to plunge on. And, as my time in Quebec wore on. plunge on I often would. I don’t think I ever came to think in French—I’m not really sure what that means—but on Day Thirteen, while explaining to the Pichés something about my plans for going home, I said “tomorrow,” instead of "demain," and I thought that perhaps that, at least, had been automatic.
What I found nearly as frustrating as the need to concentrate all the time was being unable to get across—through faulty high-school pronunciation — something I knew' was correct. Once, I conducted a long, analysis of. a book I was trying to
asiate. It was called Le Temps Des Jeux. 1 was surprised to sec that the person to whom 1 was talking apparently hadn’t read it. My exposition must have given some idea of the plot, because about halfway through he suddenly smiled in recognition and said, "Ah! Le Temps Des Jeux.” He’d thought at first that I’d been saying Le Temps Des Yeux, and, since that means “the time of the eyes,” no wonder he was puzzled.
Translating that book, incidentally, or trying to translate it, was of little help in
my language course. Though my sense of French was by then well enough developed that I could tell Le Temps des Jeux was well written. I just couldn’t make the ethereal quality of the writing come over in English—and not. I’m sorry to say, because I’d forgotten my own language. All it really did was underline for me the fact that there are two different literatures as well as two different tongues.
The movies and television were of more help, although I can only envy and congratulate those new Canadians who claim to have learned all their English from the
screen. Quebec, of course, is rather a difficult place to apply such a technique, for many of the films and TV shows—at least many of those I watched—are American, with dubbed dialogue. Without the lips moving precisely with the words, 1 was often confused. Well, you try to learn French from John Wayne.
Once, the strain became too much and 1 cheated. Day Seven was the Sunday I mentioned earlier, when the Pichés' family came for a visit. By this time. 1 was able to understand quite a lot of what was said to me, but. as in the movies, very
little of what was being said around me. Through all that afternoon and evening, I w'as lost—including through a conversation with the Pichés’ three-year-old granddaughter, whose French vocabulary seemed about the same as mine, but whose pronunciation was even more obscure. When everyone had left. 1 went wild. I slipped out to the Chateau Frontenac and bought the current editions of six English-language magazines and a book. I read till five in the morning. When sleep overtook me. 1 was on my way through the New Yorker a second time, if